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    Robin in Kansas
    Forum Participant

    Hello, All!

    When reworking a cabinet how do you get the right stain or toner if you don’t know what it was in the first place? I’ve got lots of books with lots of pictures but they are B&W or my radio isn’t in any of them.

    I’ve got a couple of nice wood radios that someone had done a hack job in stripping and then painted. There was no residue under the paint to tell me anything about shade, colour or anything.

    If you had one like this do you just go with what you think works or is there some kind of logic to follow?

    There I go using the "L" word! I may know how to spell it but I don’t always know how to use it.

    "Logic is a beautiful flower that smells bad." – Spock

    Forum Participant

    I have done just a few radios , and here is the sort of methodology I have found works for me. others will have methods they find work for them.

    I think the amount of toners varies alot, also wood naturally darkens with age. many sets like philco cathedrals have a lot of heavy toners, sometimes almost so much as to hide the grain completely in areas. many of the 40’s wooden table sets had little or no toner. color pictures are the only way to tell.
    The darkness of a radio would depend on it’s age , what I think we are trying to create by restoration is the radio that sat on grandma’s mantle and was cared for, but it would still have darkening of the wood through age, and discoloration of the laquer. If it looks "new" it will look refinished, which isn’t our aim.

    If you strip it chemically , without sanding or heavy scraping you can sometimes preserve that patina. if it is all banged up or water damaged you may need do some work on it and thus loose that. No worries, par for the course. If you can you may be able to restore the finish by cleaning and "melting"into the origional finish. there is a product to bite into the old finish. Keep in mind if there is a spot of finish missing, it will show ,even if you put a layer of toner or finish so you need to fix any light spots like this. I haven’t had too much luck with this but there is a real art to restoring a finish rather than stripping it. You can try and still have the option of completely stripping. There are also laquer sticks available that you can press onto the cabinet with a thin heated spatula, this can hide say , a cigarette burn or deep scar. so consider this if it is a good finish other than one or two small spots.

    I haven’t used grain fillers much , but if you want that piano finish people say you should fill the grain. I always figured the grain would be filled by the laquer, but it takes many many coats with sanding , and if the layer of laquer is too thick it will crack. the surface prep is very important. Most radios were never as smooth as a piece of glass, if you pick up anything made of wood that is old and run your fingers across it you will feel the voids in the grain. The wood naturally shrinks as it ages, and it doesn’t shrink evenly throughout the grain. The wood shrinks more across the grain and evidence of this shrinkage, and some warping is a characteristic of something old. when sanding the layers of finish If you try to make it perfectly flat by block sanding you will go through on a high spot or you will see some areas that are perfectly flat and others that are not. I still usually use some sort of block. a square block of rubber works best for me for most of the flat areas. I guess sort of a trade off between using a block to keep it flat but also just folded paper as well in some areas.

    If you have completely removed the finish you can dampen it slightly and do it again. the theory here is that if the wood gets wet it raises the grain and makes it rough, but that only happens once. so perhaps just a small damp sponge for a final "raising of the grain" just prior to a final light sanding and burnishing with burlap or a paper bag, etc. don’t soak it of course.

    I am not a big fan of stain , except for say matching a piece of wood that was replaced. because it is pretty much irreversable. I agree the stain sometimes makes the wood look more beautiful, stain enhances the grain and toners hide the grain. radios weren’t fine furniture, they were mass produced using laquer usually. There are different kinds of stains, some are like dyes, such as those powders you mix with alcohol, others approch that of paint, like the stuff for your fence. I would go for the stain on a project like an end table, if I were to one out of nice solid wood like dark walnut or something. some woods don’t take the stain as well. If you use toning laquers you have more control over the darkness because it is reversible by removing the finish and starting again. This is something you don’t want to do but to have the option to is nice.

    I like to mix a bit of toner into the laquer as I spray. I did a couple of radios with the spray cans and then bought a small HPLV gun. so mix a tiny bit of toner from a spray can into the clear.

    The trouble I had at first was in trying to lay the toner on evenly from a spray bomb. I would do a bit then get a drip or run and it would look really bad. .. so wash the whole thing off with laquer thinner and start again. if you put just a tiny bit more than you wanted in some area you are going back to washing the whole thing down again. so my suggestion is if you use the toner from the spray bomb, do a couple of once overs with clear, one with a fine mist of the toner, being careful to shake the can well and wipe the nozzle. then another one or two with the clear. this will tend to help blend the pigment in a bit. it can go on blotchy really easily. try for half of the darkness you want , and go back again for more if you need to.

    once the toner is on , do at least a couple of coats of clear without sanding. this is so you have something to sand without going into the toner coat. if you go through the toner it will show. you can wash it down and start over or try to use pens and stuff to hide it. if you use a gun make the laquer look like coffee instead of trying to put the toner on in one or two fine coats, and this "sanding through the toner" problem will be lessened.
    do more coats and you can use wet or dry paper with water once it has a protective coating of laquer underneath.

    If the radio has really dark areas, where it looks almost like it was painted dark brown , mask off everything but those areas next , and give them enough coats of really dark toner to almost hide the grain, but not quite.
    remove all masking tape and give the whole cabinet one last clear coat.

    for rubbing out the final finish , use fine steel wool . I bought a product called "wool soap" and swear by it . you put a dab the size of a quarter in a saucer of water, it makes the wool leave an even finer finish , the wool can only be made so fine without breaking up. go over the whole thing this way and it will hide the scratches and flat spots from wet or dry sanding between coats. the wool soap leaves a smooth and sort of semi gloss finish.

    all the products I have used have been from Mohawk furniture supplies.
    They have been very Knowlegable and helpful whenever I have questions. I think the toners I used mostly were "walnut", "extra dark walnut", and "perfect brown". they have laquer pens and the laquer sticks that I mentioned in the same colors.

    I found this to be a real labor of love. It took me way longer than it should to be practicle. My thoughts in the end were that since it is a labor of love I will do this from time to time to enjoy it and strive to get the best result I can. If I
    don’t do very many , that’s ok. later on any radios I don’t touch will be nice projects for someone else.


    Leon Garrett
    Forum Participant

    On most sites I have contacted everyone seems to use laquer spray on their radio refinishing. I have done a few radios using Varathane, semi gloss clear finish which I brush on. Looks okay to me. What should I be using?

    Gerry O’Hara

    Consider buying ‘Weekend Refinisher’ by Bruce Johnson ( … 034535866X). Also, if you search the web you will find many helpful articles.

    Typically, pre-WWII wood cabinets were finished with a spray-on lacquer, the colour being added to the lacquer before applying. Post WWII cabinets may still be lacquered, but more likely finished in a varnish (especially 1950’s onwards). Lacquer, although generally not as robust as varnish, is quite forgiving and can be repaired (techniques for this are in the above). My advice is that for a cabinet that is only showing slight wear, I would recommend trying to enhance the existing finish by cleaning, touching-up and polishing (ie. restoration, rather than re-finishing). If only the top of a cabinet is the problem, eg. where a plant has been placed and watered), consider refinishing only the cabinet top. Only strip the old finish as a ‘last resort’ – unfortunately many cabinets are in such a state that this may be the only option.

    If you decide to do undertake a complete re-finish, consider scraping the old finish off rather than using a chemical stripper, reserving the latter for the ‘awkward bits’. When down to bare wood and repairing any gouges etc. with epoxy filler/putty, sand with 600 grade paper and then fill in the grain using either products for this purpose or several coats of shellac, smoothing out between coats with 0000 steel wool, lubricated with lemon oil. Wipe dry and leave for a couple of days before lacquering to your liking – cans of spray lacquer can be used but is generally not too good. A proper spray gun and controlled temperature conditions give the best finish. You may be able to set something suitable up at home – needs to be warm and dry, preferably with filtered air to prevent minute bits of dust landing on the wet lacquer. Alternatively, if you are lucky enough to have access to a ‘professional’ spray booth, then avail yourself if you can access (eg. the SPARC museum at Coquitlam near me has such a spray booth that members can use or in which members can finish your cabinet for a donation – this is where I spray my cabinets. Very helpful folks there too – thanks Pat!).

    Very important – before you start, remember to take some ‘before’ photos – these record any subtle trim detail as well as something to compare the finished radio with later for bragging rights etc. You can mask-off areas that may need to be highlighted/accented with darker tones.

    There are some examples of radios in my collection finished using the above method posted on this forum (eg. Marconi, Silvertone, Sparton).


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